CISA may have made a mistake by aggressively combating disinformation that was popular with conservatives during the 2020 election, the agency’s acting director suggested on Wednesday.
“This agency has long benefited from broad bipartisan support in this country and with our colleagues on the Hill, and I think that future political leadership will not want to jeopardize that,” Brandon Wales said during the National Association of Secretaries of State’s winter conference. “And so I think we need to look at the appropriate role that CISA plays when it comes to countering disinformation.”
A surprising rebuke: Wales’s reference to right-wing lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with the agency’s efforts to debunk falsehoods amounts to an implicit criticism of his predecessor, Chris Krebs, who launched those efforts and repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories being pushed by former President Donald Trump’s allies. Trump ultimately fired Krebs for that work.
“Some of the actions that CISA took in the last election cycle were controversial,” said Wales, a career employee who was the agency’s third-ranking official during Krebs’ tenure.
Asked to clarify Wales’ remarks, a CISA spokesperson said the agency remained proud of its work on its Rumor Control fact-checking page and described it as “an example of where CISA was able to add value during the 2020 election by successfully debunking disinformation.”
“We stand by that work and will continue to call out disinformation when it relates to our mission and expertise, while at the same time ensuring we’re responsive to the feedback of the election community,” said the spokesperson, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a senior official’s remarks.
‘Back to basics’: Wales said he wanted CISA to focus its fact-checking initiatives “on the security aspects where we have the broadest authorities, responsibilities and ultimately expertise,” adding that “questions related to election administration” were “beyond our remit.” The United States’ decentralized approach to elections has traditionally left state officials in charge of answering questions about how they are administered.
Wales also said that after taking over CISA following Trump’s firing of Krebs, he sought to steer the agency away from controversial projects such as Rumor Control. His direction to employees, he said, was, “Let’s get back to basics — providing the best cyber and physical security products and services and guidance to election officials.”
Next steps: Wales has asked his team to propose strategies for more tailored efforts to counter disinformation in a wide range of areas, including election security and Covid-19. These proposals, he said, will be “based upon what we saw work and not work during the 2020 election cycle.”
He added that he would be “making recommendations to the future political leadership” of CISA and DHS.
“Stand by for more information on the future of our disinformation work,” Wales told the secretaries. “I know from talking to a number of the Biden transition team [members] that they are eager to engage on it, so I would expect more to come in that space soon.”
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